Mark Twain and the October 8, 1865, San Francisco Earthquake


After a brief stint as a Confederate soldier, Mark Twain headed west with his Unionist brother to see the Wild West. His experiences are captured in the book, Roughing It, one of Twain's earlier works. In the fall of 1865, while in the city of San Francisco, Twain experienced his first earthquake.

It was just after noon, on a bright October day. I was coming down Third Street. The only objects in motion anywhere in sight in that thickly built and populous quarter were a man in a buggy behind me, and a streetcar wending slowly up the cross street. Otherwise, all was solitude and a Sabbath stillness.

As I turned the corner, around a frame house, there was a great rattle and jar, and it occurred to me that here was an item!--no doubt a fight in that house. Before I could turn and seek the door, there came a terrific shock; the ground seemed to roll under me in waves, interrupted by a violent joggling up and down, and there was a heavy grinding noise as of brick houses rubbing together. I fell up against the frame house and hurt my elbow. I knew what it was now... a third and still severer shock came, and as I reeled about on the pavement trying to keep my footing, I saw a sight! The entire front of a tall four-story brick building on Third Street sprung outward like a door and fell sprawling across the street, raising a great dust-like volume of smoke!

And here came the buggy--overboard went the man, and in less time than I can tell it the vehicle was distributed in small fragments along three hundred yards of street. ... The streetcar had stopped, the horses were rearing and plunging, the passengers were pouring out at both ends, and one fat man had crashed halfway through a glass window on one side of the car, got wedged fast, and was squirming and screaming like an impaled madman. Every door, of every house, as far as the eye could reach, was vomiting a stream of human beings; and almost before one could execute a wink and begin another, there was a massed multitude of people stretching in endless procession down every street my position commanded. Never was a solemn solitude turned into teeming life quicker.


Image of partially
collapsed building, described in above quote
Image courtesy of The Museum of the City of San Francisco.

This image shows a four-story brick building on the corner of Third and Mission streets in San Francisco following the 1865 earthquake. It appeared in The Daily Alta California, and is probably the very same building Twain describes as "sprung outward like a door" in the above quote.


Forty-one years after Twain experienced this earthquake, in 1906, a truly great earthquake struck San Francisco, starting a fire that burned most of the city. Another famous American novelist, Jack London, was there to record the events of the fire.

 Home Page  Jack London's Account